Training for Control and the Hierarchy of Needs

"The person who hasn't conquered, withstood and overcome continues to feel doubtful that he could. This is true not only for external dangers; it holds also for the ability to control and to delay one’s own impulses, and therefore to be unafraid of them.” Conquering, withstanding, and overcoming is practice for asserting control over your environment and yourself. Few people, however, have a chance to practice such boldness in non-emergency situations.

Taking Control: Training and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Writers are experts in the illusory nature of control. The writer’s job is to scavenge information and collect observations, weaving them together in a comprehensible, rational version of what is. In this, the writer blends scientific rationality with existential inquiry, asking leading questions about life, the universe, and everything. The writer’s appeal is a projection of our shared desire to make sense of the world, presupposing a communal, societal, or perhaps pan-commonality that rests in the experience of our DNA. People, at some deep fundamental level, want the world to feel in control of their surroundings, control that comes from things basically making sense. And they do…at least until they don’t. 

Inevitably, nature’s indifference, life’s randomness, or people’s surprising capacity for evil will shake even the most deeply held perceptions of control. In the aftermath of such experiences, many people are often left feeling anxious and out of sorts. It’s as if we are hardwired for the comfort that control gives us.

The idea of this hardwiring for control is not new. Psychological studies continually observe what is known as the “illusion of control,” that people will people act in ways that increase their sense of control under circumstances that are subject to complete randomness and when the act of control is counterproductive. The illusion of control leads to superstition in some cases and to making choices that have no benefit other than from the intrinsic preference for control. (You might, for example, decide to take side streets to avoid gridlock, knowing deep down that you will not save any time.) There are things we do every day that replace feelings of helplessness or randomness with small acts of direct control.

We might understand the need for control as a fundamental motivation for human activity. In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a Hierarchy of Needs in which he categorized human needs according to their psychological urgency. He suggested that humans are motivated to satisfy more basic needs before they can be motivated to pursue a higher orders of needs.

“It is quite true that man lives by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?
At once other (and higher) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still higher) needs emerge, and so on. This is what we mean by saying that the basic human needs are organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency.” —from Abraham H. Maslow, “Motivation and Personality,” p. 38 (1954)

Maslow’s original theory included five motivational needs. The four basic needs were considered deficiency needs, meaning they motivate you when the needs are unmet: physiological, safety, love/belonging (social), esteem. The fifth need (self-actualization) Maslow considered a growth need, meaning that you feel satisfied as you gain self-actualization, and the more you gain, the more motivated you become. Maslow studied healthy, successful people to come up with this hierarchy, believing that what made them successful, in part, was the meeting of key physiological needs. He extrapolated that if basic needs are unmet, then your motivation for “greater” needs will subside; that is to say, if you lack food and water, you are likely not motivated to also satisfy your needs for safety or belonging. 

Despite some problems with Maslow’s Hierarchy, it has persisted due to some almost universal truths contained in it. No level of the hierarchy is “all or nothing.” Some people will be satisfied more readily at the physiological level than others, and you won’t forego basic safety like the need for shelter just because you are hungry. Still, however, unmet physiological needs, such as those required to help you maintain homeostasis, tend to shift your focus away from other possible motivations. Maslow wrote, 

“Another peculiar characteristic of the human organism when it is dominated by a certain need is that the whole philosophy of the future tends to also change. For our chronically and extremely hungry man, Utopia can be defined simply as a place where there is plenty of food. He tends to think that, if only he is guaranteed food for the rest of his life, he will be perfectly happy and will never want anything more. Life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating.” 

In the context of training, we’ve discussed how changes in energy balance, hydration, and temperature will not only invoke physical changes but will also cause you to change your behavior to remedy the deficiency. According to Maslow, this is because your most basic needs are not being met. When your needs are unmet, you experience side-effects of both a physiological and psychological nature, and you may be distracted from other vital needs. 

Losing Control

What happens then when you feel a loss of control? An example from Maslow:

“The person who has gone through a very severe accident may conclude that he is not the master of his own fate and that death is ever at his door. In the face of such an overwhelmingly stronger and more threatening world some men seem to lose confidence in their own abilities, even the simplest ones….

When we can no longer handle the situation, when the world is too much for us, when we are not masters of our own fate, when we no longer have control over the world or over ourselves, certainly we may speak of feelings of threat. Other situations in which ‘there is nothing we can do about it’ are also sometimes felt to be threatening.” (Maslow, “Motivation and Personality,” p. 136.)

Control is a deficiency need, occupying the “safety” tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. It is a deep basic human need that, when shaken or shattered, will biologically require a person to reestablish or reassert control in the same way a hungry person searches for food. Depending on the degree of loss and the person, “Individuals who do not perceive control over their environments may seek to gain control in any way possible, potentially engaging in maladaptive behaviors.” (Leotti, Lauren A et al. “Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 14,10 (2010)) 

There is an important distinction between the need for control and the perception of control. Everyone has a biological need for control. Everything we do is an exercise of control, from big life decisions to momentary acts, all voluntary behaviors involve choice and an exercise of that deep need for control. Acts are forms of actual, non-illusory control, when you do something you are exerting the “self.” Psychologists suggest that the practice of control fosters self-efficacy and the motivation to greater and greater personal goals. (see, Born to Choose.) There is, however, an essential component of perception, how you understand your level of control and how you cope with the reality that most iterations of control are illusory.

The perception of control changes from person to person, however, and can be the source of feelings of a loss of control. “The belief in one’s ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual’s general well being.” (Born to choose.) Note, however, the difference between actions and belief. While the need for control is ubiquitous and a positive part of your psyche. The perception of control must align with reality. Thus, a sudden loss of perceived control is upsetting; whereas one whose perception reasonably encompasses those events that his or her actions affect tends to maintain the perception of control even in chaotic situations. (cf. Born to Choose). 

Regaining the Perception of Control

Maslow argued that the persistent feeling of control comes not from ignoring the illusion of control but from embracing the illusion and asserting control over your direct environment as an act of defiance. He wrote, “The person who hasn’t conquered, withstood and overcome continues to feel doubtful that he could. This is true not only for external dangers; it holds also for the ability to control and to delay one’s own impulses, and therefore to be unafraid of them.” Stated in the positive, conquering, withstanding, and overcoming is practice for asserting control over your environment and yourself. Few people, however, have a chance to practice such boldness in non-emergency situations.  

Most of us have to create challenges that will refine our perception of control. In this, physical training helps meet your psychological needs. Strength training serves as a means of self-actualization, the highest tier of Maslow’s hierarchy—being stronger makes us physically better and more capable beings. And the more capable we feel, the more likely we are to continue our efforts of self-actualization.

 As you chase these results, however, something else happens. 

Every time you load the bar, face it, and choose to challenge yourself you are exercising control over the most basic, fundamental sphere of your influence: YOU. When nothing else makes sense, you can control your actions, you can make a choice. Small choices like choosing to train when you don’t want to, or overcoming the fear of a heavy set, help ground your need for control. And from there, the things that matter most—being a good person, showing empathy, raising kids, and making yourself better—stay in your control. We can tie the outcomes of training directly to different aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy: getting stronger helps you achieve esteem, helps you garner independence, and it helps you become the best expression of yourself. This IS an effort of self-actualization. But the day-to-day grind offers distinct and no less important adaptations. When you make choices that add value to you, each training session becomes an exercise of will, defiance against chaos and an act of control. Control isn’t about always succeeding. When it comes to you versus the bar, you do not always win, but as long as you succeed or fail by your own choices, you don’t really lose either.

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